Rising development costs and increased competition, combined with pressure to lower price points and decreased profit margins, have created the perception in many quarters that right now is the hardest time to be a game developer in the history of the medium.
However, it’s a position that Nintendo of America’s Senior Director of Project Development, Tom Prata, doesn’t agree with. Speaking at Casual Connect, a three-day conference in Seattle geared towards the casual games industry, Prata said that there’s still a lot of room to grow – provided developers are willing to follow two basic tenets: focusing on quality, and going after what is different.
In recent years Nintendo has taken a particularly radical approach to "going after what is different" by distancing itself from the technical arms race and expanding the video game market itself to bring an assortment of non-traditional gamers into the fold.
Based on Nintendo’s internal research, 30 million people have become active gamers over the past 2.5 years. That same research shows that there are currently 300 million people playing handhelds and consoles around the world, yet Nintendo says there are still another 150 million people with the potential to be gamers if they were just given the right games.
"Think about that," Prata emphasized. "For every two players around the world, there’s another one waiting to join."
Prata, a 10-year Nintendo veteran, said that Nintendo’s new vision began to take shape for him during a road trip he took in 2000 with current Nintendo President Satoru Iwata, who at that time had just been named the new head of corporate planning at Nintendo Japan.
"This was the most important trip of my life, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, the things we talked about then turned out to be a crystal ball for where Nintendo was headed," Prata said.
Prata and Iwata discussed the maturing video game industry, market saturation, how the cost of game development was increasing at an exponential rate, and how everywhere you looked the industry was obsessed with graphic performance.
It became obvious during the trip that Nintendo’s future was not going to be reliant on better hardware performance. This led to a paradigm shift in how the company planned to expand the game population. The solution was to design games that everyone could enjoy.
"We needed to go beyond the boundaries of how we defined games, and expand the market to include everyone," Prata said. "Mr. Iwata saw that although the games were looking better, they were also becoming more complicated to play, leading some consumers to find them intimidating and think ‘these aren’t for me.’"
The road trip cemented the idea for Prata that Nintendo’s future would be defined not by technical performance, but by the nature of the interactive experience. It was this philosophy, years later, that led to the touch-screen Nintendo DS and motion-sensitive Wii remote.
Nintendo’s Wii Fit is certainly one game that has stood out from the crowd, becoming the best-selling game in the world since it launched in Japan at the end of 2007, even though it carried a higher-than-normal price tag of nearly $90.
"From our experience, many developers tend to narrow target to specific audience. We don’t operate on those terms; rather we choose to focus on broader market; things that appeal to everyone," Prata said. "If you can make games that appeal to everyone, regardless of experience level, then one step closer to expanding the industry."
Prata also emphasized the importance of not cutting corners on quality. "We all have budgets and constraints, but … deciding to chip away at that core quality is never a good strategy," he said. "Not only will players pay for quality, but it’s also what they promote to their family and friends, paving the way to establishing new intellectual properties and franchises. Quality is not only valuable today, but stands the test of time."
To prove his point, Prata illustrated the ongoing value of arcade classics like Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and Galaga, 30-year-old games that are still popular digital downloads on the Wii and other platforms today.
"These are games that consumers are still willing to pay to play, and clearly advancing technology has nothing to do with it," Prata said.